I remember laying in bed as a child, maybe eleven or twelve, and feeling anxious about childbirth.
I’m not even sure I knew much about the process. But what I did sense, was that to face childbirth was to surrender control. As a teenager, I asked my mother about what that felt like; to be heavily pregnant, and know that birth – an experience almost universally referred to as the most painful thing a person can go through – was your only way out. How does one sleep? Is there something claustrophobic about it? Wasn’t she terrified?
There was a little bit of that, she admitted. But it was worth it and she would do it again in a heartbeat. Her births were not traumatic or life-threatening. She looked back on them fondly.
But that did little to placate my fears.
Watch: Jessie Stephens on No Filter with Mia Freedman. Post continues after video.
Years later, I interviewed an obstetrician for a story I was writing. I asked him if there was any way to just be knocked out and then woken up once the baby was born. I suppose like a c-section under a general anaesthetic. He laughed, and we both pretended I was joking. I don’t think I was joking.
It seems ridiculous to even type out the sentence: I don’t like pain. No one does. But more than that, I do not like to feel stuck. I like control. I like choices. The prospect of being stuck in pain indefinitely, the only escape being the most painful part of all – the ring of fire – made me feel sick. I would stare at pregnant women walking down the street in awe. How were they so calm? Didn’t they know what was coming? Had they not read the stories?
And then I’d see women with actual real-life children. What warriors. I watched them operate as though they weren’t especially brave or strong, yawning or ordering a coffee as though they weren’t that unlike me. But they were exceptional. I figured they must be made of different stuff.
The reason I thought about all this so much, I suppose, is because I always knew, deep down, that I wanted kids. And according to my calculations, this likely meant I would have to carry and bear them. S**t.
There’s nothing like forcing you to confront your fears like accidentally falling pregnant at 32. She was so wanted, even if she wasn’t entirely expected. I knew there was a lot to prepare for. For some, not thinking about the birth works just fine. For me, there was some work to do.
The first thing I did was admit I was scared. I told my obstetrician. My midwife. I told friends and acquaintances who had given birth. This led to some really important, enlightening conversations.
My obstetrician kept repeating the mantra “it’s one day of your life”. Easy for you to say, I thought during our first appointment. You’re a man.
But at every appointment, he asked me how I was feeling about the birth. If I had any questions. He offered me reassurance and there is not a single query about epidurals I did not raise. He wrote “early epidural” on my birth card. It made me feel safer. I did, in the end, get an early epidural.
Women began whispering to me their positive birth stories. They didn’t want to sing them too loudly because they were aware how awful others were. A great birth story can sound like a humble brag – as though you earned it or think someone else simply did birth wrong. But that’s not where these stories were ever coming from. I heard about women who laughed through their births. Others told me they found pushing euphoric. Many said it was one of their favourite memories. I held onto their words tightly.
One friend recommended a book called Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth. Like everything pregnancy, birth and parenting related, it is somewhat controversial. May could be read as being anti-intervention and anti-pain relief and has said things over the years I don’t agree with. Her book, however, helped tremendously.
She writes about birthing without fear, and how the anticipation of pain can generate pain. May tells a story in a TED Talk called ‘Reducing fear of birth in U.S. culture’, about a woman in Ireland who was visited by a doctor during labour. He offered her pain relief, which she rejected. Once the baby was born, the doctor asked her “was that painful?” to which she replied, “was it meant to be?”
Now – as someone who has felt a contraction – I would describe them as painful. But what I loved about this story was that it speaks to the cultural construction of pain. There is such a thing as productive pain. And it isn’t the same as, say, kidney stones or a broken leg.
May’s book shared exclusively positive birth stories. Many featured accounts of long early labour, where women explored what helped and what didn’t. While the approach was very natural and often avoided hospital (not my style), what the book managed to capture was the way labour progressed, and it reframed ‘pain’ as ‘intensity’ or ‘surges’. In each of the stories, the women felt satisfied with how their births had unfolded. They felt calm and cared for.
This became my focus. I could not control how, exactly, I birthed my baby. But I could control my mindset.
In the same way the treatment for a fear of flying is often to understand the mechanics of an aeroplane and how it surfs on the wind, the treatment for a fear of childbirth seemed to be to learn as much as I could about it. I did some fantastic birth classes, all about what the cervix does, how melatonin and oxytocin and endorphins all play a role in labour, statistics that gave me a sense of how likely certain outcomes were and the movement of the baby through the birth canal. Those classes demystified the process.
A few friends of mine had highly recommended a pelvic floor physio, and so from about 25 weeks, I began seeing someone. Again, I was given a masterclass in how my body worked. I learned what muscles would need to function during labour, how to perform perineal massage which would give me the best chance of not tearing, and I was taught how to push. None of this promised me a straightforward birth, but it meant I had peace of mind that I was doing everything I could to give myself the best chance. I recognise the privilege in being able to afford a pelvic floor physio, but even if women can go to one appointment in the lead up to birth, or YouTube perineal massage in the final weeks, the research says it’s worth it. It’s my belief that pelvic floor physios should be included as part of pre and post-birth care. Hopefully, one day.
I knew I also needed strategies. Having had a traumatic experience with pain twelve months prior, I wanted a variety of options. I liked the sound of a TENS machine, which reduces the sensation of pain by sending electrical impulses through the skin on the back. Even if I used it for five minutes and hated it, at least it would be something to try, so I hired one of those. They generally cost about $70 to borrow. Then I listened to some books about calm birth on Audible, including The Calm Birth Method by Suzy Ashworth and Liz Stanford.
I expected calm birth to be used in addition to medical science, but I quickly learned that it was medical science. While using the calm birth method doesn’t promise anyone any outcome, it’s inarguable that staying calm helps. Panic is counterproductive. The biggest takeaways for me were the breathing techniques during contractions (for example, in for four, out for seven), which I practised during stressful moments in the lead-up to birth.
I also started listening to calm birth or hypnobirthing meditations in the bath at night. I’ve never been much good at keeping a meditation practice even though I’m sure it works, but something about having a finish line meant I was more motivated to actually do them. My husband would hear the affirmations throughout the house, like “contractions can’t be stronger than me because they are me” or “each surge brings me one step closer to meeting my baby” and roast me later, but I truly think these mantras imprinted themselves on my nervous system. By the time contractions came, I wasn’t afraid of them.
Throughout pregnancy, I was also co-hosting a podcast called Hello, Bump, full of dozens of interviews with midwives and obstetricians and mums and the resounding advice I received was to have birth preferences rather than a birth plan. This meant that at every stage I was aware of my options, knew why I was being advised to do A instead of B, and understood what was happening to my body. I trusted my doctors and midwives wholly, but the birth preferences meant I felt empowered, and not simply like a vessel whose only purpose was to get this baby out. As a midwife said to me, “you are not a walking uterus”.
Listen to this episode of Hello Bump with Jessie Stephens. Post continues after podcast.
Then, of course, there were a few sessions with a psychologist. He helped me articulate what, exactly, I was afraid of, and challenged some of my catastrophising. Again, my obstetrician helped with this too. Every appointment I’d come in with a new fear, like haemorrhaging or pain relief being ineffective and he would talk me through what we would do in the event that those things did happen.
The final thing I didn’t expect to help with my fear of childbirth was the overwhelming desire to not be pregnant anymore. I had awful pregnancy insomnia, pain in my ribs and hips, found movement increasingly difficult and was peeing every hour or two. The prospect of birth was akin to awaiting surgery that you know will provide near-instant relief. There was also an impatience to meet this baby who I had been getting to know for the last nine months. Who was she? What did she look like? How much would I love her?
It wasn’t until I was in the throes of childbirth that I realised I’d overcome my fear of it. I felt curious about the sensations. There was something quite special, going into it, knowing it was something my mother had done, her mother, her mother’s mother, and so on. It is one of the most embodied, mindful experiences I’ve ever had.
While my labour was long and deprived me of any sleep for three days, there is nothing I would change about it. I am lucky. There is so much that can happen, and my birth was uncomplicated.
But that is not why I feel proud.
I feel proud because I did it. A baby that was once inside me is now here. I brought her into this world and did not panic. I did the thing I was most afraid of. It was not easy or pain-free. But I did not resist the experience, I surrendered to it.
And I have never felt prouder of anything in my life.
Feature Image: Supplied + Mamamia.
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